Thursday, March 20, 2008

Head 'em off at the Cliffs

This is my third post, and, I suppose, about time to actually provide something resembling an introduction to my blog. Welcome.

While writing the first entry, I decided that I won't be a daily blogger, or even a weekly blogger, for that matter. I'll update as the muse hits and time permits. As such, use of a subscription mechanism to get updates might be your best bet, if you like what you see.

How do you do that? Heck, I don't know. I've been working with computers in a professional capacity for 25 years, but I have long passed the point where I'm perfectly happy remaining competent in my areas of specialty, and letting the world pass me by in other areas. If the Internet is the Dr. Seuss universe, than I am perhaps one of the Zax, standing toe to toe, face to face in the Prairie of Prax, waiting for completion of the bypass...

I choose to believe, whether you agree with me or not, that I am putting quality before quantity. Time will tell. But as a general rule, I find shortcuts unsatisfactory. Your high school English teacher probably agrees. Remember him or her? That's the person whose X-ray eyes could see the yellow and black stripes of a CliffsNotes booklet through the combined thickness of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and your World History textbook. But who probably didn't need this ability to recognize direct CliffsNotes quotes.

That's right. Whether you were ever told to your face or not, chances are you were caught in the act.

Of course, the CliffsNotes format leant itself to, er, rapid reading of large works. But at the college level, that wasn't enough. Instead, there were barely-clandestine services from which you could purchase "study guides", which happened to arrive in the form of a completed research paper. Of course, nobody would ever actually retype these and hand them in as their own work. For one thing, most college students were much too honest. And for another thing, most major universities had files of these papers, collected for comparison purposes. Nobody wanted to risk getting caught.

This was, of course, back in the days before the Internet, before developers plowed under the Prairie of Prax. Today, these papers - uh, I mean, research aids - are widely available online. In fact, I found one this week, while searching for a reference from Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird". One of my Google hits (subtext for the day: "Google is Your Friend") was a page on a paper-for-sale web site, for a 2000-word essay titled: "The Class System in To Kill a Mockingbird" The first sentence alone gives a sense of product quality:
The existence of a superior and inferior stratification in societies are due to economic status, social status, religion, and skin color between the white and black race as demonstrated in To Kill a Mockingbird.

I am reluctant to quote much more of the provided excerpt, for fear the publisher may sue for defamation. The work is rife with basic structural flaws, grammatical errors, spelling and punctuation errors.

Were this the work of one of my wife's students, or one of my kids, I might offer (unsolicited) private criticism and suggestions. As this is a piece of merchandise for sale, I don't feel reluctant in offering public ridicule. But while that may bring temporary satisfaction, the larger context is troubling.

The bothersome thing about this is not that someone is willing to try and pass off crap writing as a valuable "educational" tool. The bothersome thing is not that there are students at high school and college levels willing and able to buy papers. The thing that really wrinkles my shorts is that the web site implies the existence of a market in which the consumers don't recognize this product for the garbage it is.

It's one thing to have a subpopulation of lazy, dishonest students, and a whole 'nother thing to have lazy, dishonest, stupid students.

But I attempted to take the paper at face value. As a teacher, my wife has a different take on it. She suggests that if a student turns in a bad paper, a teacher is less likely to bother investigating it as plagiarized.

Maybe the younger generation has more on the ball than I gave them credit for...

So, teachers, if one of your students turns in a bad paper, and you know they really could have done much, much better, remember: Google is your Friend.